Wandering Thoughts archives

2017-06-04

Why the popen() API works but more complex versions blow up

Years ago I wrote about a long-standing Unix issue with more sophisticated versions of popen(); my specific example was writing a large amount of stuff to a subprogram through a pipe and then reading its output, where both sides stall trying to write to full pipes. Of course this is not the only way to have this problem bite you, so recently I ran across Andrew Jorgensen's A Tale of Two Pipes (via), where the same problem comes up when a subprogram writes to both standard output and standard error and you consume them one at a time.

Things like Python's subprocess module and many other imitators generally trace their core idea back to the venerable Unix popen(3) library function, which first appeared in V7 Unix. However, popen() itself does not actually have this problem; only more sophisticated and capable interfaces based on it do.

The reason popen() doesn't have the problem is straightforward and points to the core problem with more elaborated versions of the API. popen() doesn't have a problem because it only gives you a single IO stream, either the sub-program's standard input or its standard output. More sophisticated APIs give you multiple streams, and multiple streams are where you get into trouble. You get into trouble because more sophisticated APIs with multiple streams are implicitly pretending that the streams can be dealt with independently and serially, ie that you can fully process one stream before looking at another one at all. As A Tale of Two Pipes makes clear, this is not so. In actuality the streams are inter-dependent and have to be processed together, although Unix pipe buffers can hide this from you for a while.

Of course you can handle the streams properly yourself, resorting to poll() or some similar measure. But you shouldn't have to remember to do that, partly because as long as you have to take additional complex steps to make things work right, people are going to be forgetting this requirement. In the name of looking simple and generic, these APIs have armed a gun that is pointed straight at your feet. A more honest API would make the inter-dependency clear, perhaps by returning a Subprocess object that you registered callbacks on. Callbacks have a bad reputation but they at least make it clear that things can (and will) happen concurrently, instead of one stream being fully handled before another stream is even touched.

(Go has an interesting approach to the problem that is sort of half solution and half not. In its core os/exec API for this, you you provide streams which will be read from or written to asynchronously. However there are helper methods that give you a more traditional 'here is a stream' interface and with it the traditional problems.)

Sidebar: Why people keep creating these flawed subprogram APIs on Unix

These APIs keep getting created because they're attractive. How the API appears to behave (ie, without the deadlock issues) is how people often want to deal with subprograms. Most of the time you're not interacting with them step by step, sending in some input and collecting some output; instead you're sending in the input, collecting the output, and maybe collecting standard error as well in case something blew up. People don't want to write poll() based loops or callbacks or anything complicated, because concurrency is at least annoying. They just want the simple API to work.

Possibly libraries should make the straightforward user code work by handling all of the polling and so on internally and being willing to buffer unlimited amounts of standard output and standard error. This would probably blow up less often than the current scheme does, and you could provide various options for how much to buffer and how to deal with overflow for advanced users.

PopenAPIWiseLimitation written at 02:26:09; Add Comment

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